Created by genius Genndy Tartakovsky, Dexter’s Laboratory is one of those animated series I so fondly remember from my childhood. Four pilots aired from 1995 to 1996, leading to the series running for 78 episodes from 1996 to 1998 and then again from 2001 to 2003 with a TV movie in between in 1999. During this time, the series managed to branch out into comic books, as well as toys and games, and became one of the most famed Cartoon Network shows. It tells the story of a scientist child and his often-annoying sister and was so much more than just an animated series. It also paved the way for a 90s animation style that pushed Cartoon Network and animation as a whole to a new, exciting peak.
Being one of the earliest original televised series for the network, Dexter’s Lab led the way for many of the other shows that 90’s children grew up with. Without the springboard of its hit success, we may not have seen Tartakovsky go on to reshape people’s perception of animation with his shows Samurai Jack and Primal.
Up until the premiere of Dexter’s Lab, animation had fallen into a somewhat formulaic rut, with many creators attempting to either recreate the old Hanna Barbera shows of the 60s or try to go down the route of 80s action series. Dexter subverted all of this by being its own entity. The title character and his sister Dee Dee, who are polar opposites, played off each other in both visual aesthetics, one being tall and thin, the other being short and stumpy, and also in mind, through their mannerisms and actions. This allowed for interesting plots that let the two main characters spark against one another in new and exciting ways. The often simplistic art style allowed for a more cartoonish movement and that pushed the animation and made the characters more recognisable to a wider audience.
In terms of talent, many of the people working on this series would go on to create shows like Family Guy, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends and The Powerpuff Girls, all staples of animation in some form or another. Meanwhile, Dexter’s Lab featured the voice work of Eddie Deezan as nemesis Mandark and Christine Cavanaugh and Candi Milo as Dexter (seasons 1-2 and seasons 3-4 respectively). The great cast helped to further shape the overall tone of the show, delivering witty dialogue with instantly iconic voices.
The theme music is one that has stayed with me since childhood and I know that for many it’s fondly remembered. At the time, the series was cinematically sound, something that Tartakovsky would go on to implement in his later work. Although it featured simplistic designs, it was far from a typical Saturday morning cartoon in that its action was so expertly timed and its stories so strongly paced and written. In terms of the latter, the writers often deployed a plot device that allowed for wild and outlandish settings which only served to push the series to greater heights. The show even included references to other popular media, including Japanese Kaiju and Mecha.
When Tartakovsky moved on to new projects and the series was later renewed with a new team, it lost a lot of the beauty of the earlier seasons – instead giving audiences flat backgrounds with minimalistic colouring, as well as revamped character designs. Despite being still instantly recognisable, there was an eventual decline in quality before the series’ cancellation.
It’s a shame because the original team struck gold with the show and it isn’t hard to see the impact that the series has had on developing the animation genre. Despite the eventual fall from grace, Dexter’s Laboratory still evokes warm memories for many of us and will stand tall, unlike Dexter himself, with the greats of the animated medium.